Fires of Frustration

The first image I saw in our local San Jose paper about France was a silhouette of a young man in a hoodie, holding a bat over his head and standing triumphantly on top of a burning car. I thought it was from New York, Oakland, New Orleans. Had I not seen the dateline, I still would have thought the picture came from those American places after skimming the article. The reasons that brought this young man to a mixed display of rage and power are issues that continue to burn with youth of color here -- police brutality, racism, alienation.

That of course, is what has everyone so scared. The same combustible conditions that ignited France exist for young people in cities and suburbs all around the world. If thousands of cars on fire, 12-year-olds shooting at police and schools being destroyed is the effect of years of discrimination, unemployment and a high profile case of police misconduct in France, who knows what could happen elsewhere.

More than two weeks later, although the fire has threatened to catch in neighboring countries, it seems that a repeat of 1968 -- the year that young people worldwide rose up and challenged the standing governments of their time -- is unlikely. As for the young people of France, draconian measures such as curfews and deportations have already begun. If these youths felt discriminated against before, just wait till the smoke clears. The young people of France will be taught a lesson, as young people were in Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King riots, through increased law enforcement and arrest rates. Fire, the lesson goes, is not a way to make change.

And why didn't the fire catch, with such abundant fuel? Pundits and journalists say it is because the French youths, in contrast to those of '68, lack any coherent ideology. These current "hooligans" and "vandals" have no political aim except voicing their "disgust with the government." In 1968 they at least had an agenda, a manifesto and a worldview of socialism to contain and guide their energy.

But the youths of France have already communicated a political concept to young people around the world who identify with their plight. That message is not a uniting, long-term world-view, but rather lies in the immediate tactic itself -- if they will not see you, light up the city.

Just before Paris started burning, on Oct. 22, myself and other community organizers held a march and rally in East San Jose to stop police brutality. We staged the rally in a neighborhood composed predominantly of Mexican immigrants that has had increasing reports of police harassment. The event was particularly timely because San Jose is going through the biggest police brutality trail we have ever seen. The case is of Michael Walker, a state drug agent who mistakenly killed Rudy Cardenas, a father of five. Walker is the first drug agent in California history to go to trial for killing someone in the line of duty.

The rally was successful, in that hundreds of young people came out, marched and chanted. Most were under the age of 25. In their eyes they are counterparts to the youths of France, suffering police brutality, high unemployment and dwindling opportunities to improve their lives. Most are sons and daughters of immigrants.

If the state agent is convicted, those young people who marched will feel a long-awaited moment of justice was served. "Justice for Rudy" was their main rallying cry. But if the agent is acquitted, what is the response of the young people of San Jose, who see in Michael Walker every cop that ever harassed them? We have already held the marches, rallies, vigils and prayer circles. Our tactics have been exhausted. After the images we've seen from France, though, there is now a new point of reference for another tactic, one that is as accessible to a group of kids in East San Jose as it is to youths in the projects surrounding Paris.

The tactic, destruction, may be inadvisable. Even the youths of France, when this is all over, might say so. But it is inarguably compelling to those who feel their "disgust with the government" is not being heard. A draconian response by the government is, at least, some response.

Some young people have already begun to talk of rioting after seeing France. But the only riots most of us in San Jose have seen have been at the end of the city's Cinco de Mayo parade, when youths have their own "cat and mouse" game with the cops. Nonetheless, the energy that arises at that annual event is contagious and powerful, and seems to mask a political energy -- it's the one day of the year that everyone gets together to get back at the police. Young people get tear-gassed and arrested, but every year they keep coming back. And every year there is a feeling on the street that if one more thing happens, like this one car getting tipped, or a cop hitting just one more person, this place might go off.

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